It sometimes feels like the sting of this everlasting winter will never ease. But no matter: there’s another brilliant coffee shop popped up in Oxford, part of a new wave of caffeine culture that’s helping to soothe the biting chill. It’s called Quarter Horse, and is situated at 76 Cowley Road, which you encounter on your right about 250 metres after leaving the Plain, traveling out of town.
Quarter Horse opened at the start of the year and already has a legion of enthusiastic followers. The brain-child of Chicago native Nathan Retzer and business partner James Lancaster, it furthers the so-called third wave of coffee in Oxford.
If the first wave was a return from instant to real beans and espresso-based coffee, and the second heralded the rise of branded franchises like Starbucks, then the third signifies a return to simplicity: an indie vibe, with sky-high quality. Quarter Horse has this in spades. The external façade is completely without pretension, while inside is uncluttered. I can completely imagine wanting to de-camp here after hours in a library, to reflect on notes and bring a new clarity to matters.
Quarter Horse has all the accoutrements of a cutting-edge indie coffee offering: dark lumps of natural sugar instead of catering cubes or paper sachets; simple, Nordic-style wooden surfaces to sit at; smaller volume servings that have higher concentrations of taste; a lovely degree of natural light from outside; and of course top notch coffee, this time from Square Mile, a London roaster founded by James Hoffmann (World Barista Champion 2007) and Anette Moldvaer (World Coffee Cup Tasting Champion 2007).
In case you’re wondering, a quarter horse, explains Retzer, is a type of American racehorse. “I wanted it to sound pub-like,” he explains, “but all my suppliers refer to us as Quarter House!”
It was fellow Oxford Today blogger Paul Keers who, bringing his son up to Oxford in 2010, noticed that the brown watery stuff that once counted for coffee in Oxford had been replaced by a zingy modern coffee culture. But it was the decision of Blackwell’s to situate a Nero franchise within its book store that re-established — within Oxford at least — the time-hallowed connection between caffeine and belles lettres.
Now, we can look forward to a café within the Bodleian Library – at least the Weston Library when it updates the New Bodley in 2015. I expect there will be some mutterings about this development, but devotees of the British Library will barely flicker an eyelid. Since the current St Pancras site opened in 1997, Oliver Peyton has made millions of readers happy with strong coffee and hot churros from his Peyton and Byrne outlets.
Meanwhile, Oxford keeps updating. There’s now Valerie Patisserie on the High, while AMT is served off a wagon in Cornmarket and from a kiosk in the railway station. But the real kudos has to go to Quarter Horse and its kin.
We ran a story on Ori Halup’s The Missing Bean in Turl Street in OT Michaelmas, 2011. It is Halup who really kicked off the third-wave in Oxford, and these days you can barely find a place to sit, so popular has it proved. The second example is Zappis Café, founded by Italian, ex-cycling pro Flavio Zappi. We ran a story on that too – although it’s now changed location, and is newly situated above a bike shop in St Michael’s Street. The third noteworthy outlet is in fact two — Chateau Gateaux, at 71 St Clement’s, and Rick’s Café at 90 Cowley Road — both under the carapace of a single company, the twist here being noteworthy coffee being sold alongside brilliant, French-inspired cakes and patisserie, at remarkably down-to-earth prices.
I certainly wish any of these places had existed when I was a student, especially when faced with essay-angst. One is reminded of Cassandra Clare’s note (real name Judith Rumelt, the American author): “As long as there was coffee in the world, how bad could things be?”